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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Albums 18: Today (GIA, 2007)

Somehow, in all the excitement of getting our new collection, Like No God We Had Imagined, launched, I didn't realize that I never got around to publishing an "Albums" post about our previous CD, entitled Today. We had finished the 2005 recording of Christ the Icon, but still had a number of songs that we wanted to share. GIA had already published "Heart of a Shepherd" after I had made an inquiry about arranging the Gelineau Psalm 23 for the verses. As I explained in my SongStories blogpost on that song, this conversation began just at the time that Pope John Paul II was dying, and GIA liked "Heart" and wanted to make it available in the interregnum, as they say, for communities to pray with. We made a proposal to them based around that and some other GIA administered psalm texts and other material, and the collection took on the name of two of the songs, Today.

The order of songs tries to follow the order of the Church year a little bit, though it would have been most groovy to have begun and ended with “New Jerusalem.” We cut out an instrumental verse from the recording, and if we could have stuck it on the end, it would have been very Sergeant Pepperish, but we ixnayed the oovygray. So the CD begins with “New Jerusalem,” picking up the first Sunday of Advent's eschatological glimpse of the end at the beginning, then go to “The Wilderness Awaits You,” a song for the nativity cycle based on various biblical texts, but mostly an updating of the prayer that is Psalm 72, used both in Advent and at Epiphany. Both of those songs have entire posts written about them in the SongStories series, and you can use their links to read those if you wish, as well as the other linked SongStories posts in the text that follows.

In the Christmas series on this recording, there comes next “In the Stillness,” a choral  reworking of the Dameans' song. Gary Daigle and his Damean colleagues had produced an album of Christmas songs in the late 1980s entitled Light in the Darkness, and over the years in our concerts together we had used "Stillness" many times, often as part of a medley of songs that told the gospel story from beginning to end in song. When he was working with me at St. Anne, Gary produced this SAB arrangement of the song, and my choir grew to love it, so we thought we'd share it with the world. Gary's musical ear takes the melody of the verses from a beginning in A minor to end each time in C major, which is lovely enough, but he wrote a contrasting third verse which starts in C minor but diverges through B major, returning suddenly to Am for verse 4. 

What follows is the first of the "Today" psalms, my setting of Psalm 96 for Midnight Mass, “Today,” called that to translate "Hodie" as in, "Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord." Later on the recording, Psalm 118 for Easter bears the same name. There, "Today" translates Haec dies in Psalm 118—"This is the day." Of course, I hope that people will see the text connection and hear it in the musical motif, suggesting in an artistic way the connection between the incarnational and paschal celebrations, their union in the paschal mystery, and some insight into Christmas as "Easter in wintertime," at least in the northern hemisphere! The Dameans’ choral song “Light in the Darkness" follows, rearranged for a more modest church choir and orchestra, from the original version which was the title song of the previously mentioned  Dameans’ Christmas CD. Once again, my choir at St. Anne's considers this song a Christmas essential, and my hope is that many other choirs will try it and come to feel the same way. Michael Balhoff's poetic text uses a structure that employs repetition of similar elements that urge us to give glory for the light and for the darkness, while Gary's music and instrumental arrangement is lush and original, taking us from F to F minor and back again with a genuine freshness that is unmistakably Christmas.

My “Litany for the Scrutinies,” and “Psalm 22 for Passion Sunday” follow, both of which I really like and I hope other music directors do too. Again, both have SongStories posts linked above, and you can hear music clips and read more on those pages. These are followed by my Easter psalm 118, also called “Today.” As I alluded to earlier, Psalm 118 uses the same motif for the word "Today" as the Christmas psalm does, but aside from the key and time signature, that's where the similarity ends. These are two different psalms set differently, but which use a motif to suggest a theological connection. The "Today" of God's action in Christ, in the incarnation and in the resurrection, is "today," this very day, same God, same Christ, new day, thanks be to God.

Next up is a choir/congregation version of the Latin sequence “Victimae Paschali Laudes.” If you're not familiar with the sequence, it is a hymn that precedes the gospel acclamation on Easter and Pentecost (and, optionally, on Corpus Christi), based on medieval songs that trope on scenes or words in the gospel. Victimae is an Easter song exhorting Christians to praise the risen Christ. In my setting, I have retained the Latin plainsong tune and text, and interspersed it with the Alleluia from "O Filii et Filiae," all rendered in an Fm mode.

Let me confess right now that I know that I'm the last person anyone would expect to set a Latin chant, but the economy of words and juxtaposition of opposites in the text (e.g., innocens/peccatores; mors/vita; mortuus/vivus; sepulcrum/viventis) is without equal in any English translation I know of. But I'm also aware that this is lost on 98% of people in the pew. It is in the least idiosyncratic that I would do this, but I'm so spiritually smitten with this lovely chant that I thought I would try to arrange in such a ways as to preserve its beauty and also reverence the principle of active participation. In doing so, more may be made of a sequence than was the original intention, but these are preserved only on great solemnities, so some leeway might be assumed. I used some organum in the choral verses to suggest the medieval milieu of the song, which also allows for the movement between chant rhythms and time as we move between the sequence and refrain, which ultimately becomes the gospel acclamation.

The next cut on the CD is the Easter communion song, “Heart of a Shepherd," which like others has its own full SongStories page. The recording is rounded out with the Ascension psalm 47, "God Mounts His Throne." This setting has its origins in my college days, but it is simple and evocative, originally scored for organ, trumpet, cantor and assembly, I added SAB to the refrain for the recording, along with some text edits. There's not much one can do to dress up an enthronement psalm, though, and imagining a king being enthroned while the warrior God is evoked and people are urged to "clap their hands" and "sing a song of joy" makes me really uncomfortable in a culture where the commander-in-chief is all too often the high priest of the "God bless America" civil religion. Walter Brueggeman suggested in Israel's Praise that we should be wary of psalmic alleluias that want us to "praise the Lord" without specifying which Lord we are worshiping and why. The implication is that not all psalms are created equal, and when the "alleluia" says "praise the status quo" instead of "praise the God who lifts up the lowly, and raises the poor from the dust," we may be be part of the problem, and not the solution. But Ascension comes every year, and we have to rely on each other, and the homilist, and the rest of the liturgy, music, and life of the parish to help us interpret the scriptures, right?

The last song on the album is a collaboration with my daughter Claire on a wedding song called “Song of Songs, based upon verses from that biblical text whose verses sound like an erotic epithalamion but which may be some coded language about the end of the Babylonian captivity or some other literary form. In any case, its use at weddings makes it eligible for a musical setting, and I took Claire's paraphrase of the text and set it to what I hoped was a Randy Newman-ish melody and accompaniment. You can audition it, and the other songs on Today, on the GIA website, or using the arrow button in the iTunes window below.

This completes the list of albums we've done together so far, except for Terry's albums, for which I hope she will eventually write up her memories. She did the song selection for them, and she is a perceptive thinker and entertaining writer. It is for these reasons I have left the option to write about those recordings to her and her busy schedule. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about the making of these recordings. If you want to see the list of album posts or SongStories posts on my blog, just use the "Labels" tool on the right column at the top of any blog page, and click on the "Albums" or "SongStories" link. You'll then see a complete list of whichever "Label" you selected.

Until late this year or early 2016 then, that's the story of Cooney-Daigle-Donohoo collaborations in recording. Thanks for reading!

For more information about the Today CD and music collection at GIA, click here.